For my 43rd birthday, my parents gave me a gift certificate from Air Combat USA
for their Fighter Lead In Program. I must say I was at a loss for words. I've wanted to fly with them for years. This was the push I needed to
make this dream a reality! Being a Certified Flight Instructor, Glider with about 1,500 hours at the time and aerobatics experience, I thought I knew
what to expect. Boy, was I wrong! I knew it was going to be exciting, but words just can’t describe it. While it looks like it might be dangerous, the
addiction you’ll have when you leave is probably the worst thing that will happen to you.
The folks at Air Combat USA are top notch. I was able to schedule my flights with them within 3 weeks of my phone call. Since the Fighter Lead In Program
consists of 2 sessions, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, each consisting of about an hour briefing, an hour of flight time and another hour
of debriefing, I would be with them at least 6 hours and was duly impressed that they could fit me in so quickly.
I flew with “Nails” for my morning engagements, and “Rocket” in the afternoon. Each was very professional. Each of our engagements were flown
in the Extra 300. Being a Flight Instructor, I know how important it is to let your
students fly as much as possible without overloading them. I flew well over 90% of the time and was very comfortable doing so due their expert knowledge.
As a matter of fact, the only time I didn’t fly was, understandably, for take off and landing and the initial demonstration of some combat maneuvers.
For the first hop of the day, I was scheduled to fly against another person who had no flight experience. I flew with “Nails” and my opponent flew
with “Rocket”. I got a feel for the Extra on the way out to the combat area. What a dream to fly! I’m used to the controls of a glider and the Extra
is very responsive in comparison. The controls are light and not much input is needed to make the aircraft do whatever it is you want. The 4 morning
engagements were mostly horizontal battles, using high and low yo-yos with lead and lag pursuits. I was pleased with how I did, but knew the afternoon would
I flew with “Rocket” for the afternoon engagements and my very experienced (this was his 7ht time flying with Air Combat)
opponent flew with “Nails”. This time, the fights were vertical and a lot more aggressive. This time we build on the maneuvers used in the morning and threw
in displacement rolls with some vertical and oblique turns thrown in to make it interesting. Any previous flight experience I had was equalized when the fight
was on. My opponent’s experience was obvious. He knew how far to push the plane, taking it right to the edge of the envelope without stepping outside.
Then, he just waited for me to make a mistake. In the heat of battle, the smooth input I’m used to using in a glider turned into over controlling (I
haven’t done that since I was a student pilot :-0), and my opponent pounced each time I made a mistake. I the end, we flew 6 engagements, and it was a
draw, each of us winning 3.
The in-flight videos made each debriefing a great learning tool. The video from both planes was played side by side so you could see what was happing in each.
As I suspected, each time I made a mistake, my opponent saw it and capitalized on it. Each of my 3 victories were because I was able to maneuver into a
position were he couldn’t see me, making him totally defensive (he didn’t make any mistakes!). What a great way to learn!
At the end of the day, we congratulated each other on sharing the “unfriendly skies” and I received the control grip trophy that each Fighter Lead In
participant gets. It’s very well crafted and is an exact replica of the grip used in the F-4. In the fighter pilot tradition, I was assigned my call sign, “Breaker”
by my squadron mates (that’s another story all together ;-)). This was the most memorable, best birthday gift anybody has ever given me. Thanks Mom & Dad! Now,
to feed that addiction I talked about earlier.